The Spare Room, Helen Garner. Henry Holt and Company. 175pp, $22.00.
Helen Garner’s The Spare Room opens with the narrator, also named Helen, preparing a room for an impending guest. She puts fresh sheets on the bed, fluffs the pillows, fans out an array of books on a table, clips some greenery to put in a vase, opens a window to let in some fresh air. There is an assurance to her ministrations, a kind of pleased, self-aware graciousness in the way she plumps the pillows and rolls out a new rug. Even though there is clearly something amiss with the visitor—Helen chooses a pink sheet because it is “flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish,” and debates whether or not to put a mirror in the room—there is no sense of fear or dread in the preparations. Instead, in this opening scene Garner captures the self-satisfied, empathetic ritual that is preparing a “space” for a guest. The Spare Room uses the basic relationship of houseguest to host to describe the necessary bounds of empathy: the carefully arranged mental space we leave for the suffering of others.
The narrator, Helen, is a writer in her sixties who seems eminently comfortable in her skin and in her life. She’s divorced, but she has good friends, a good career, and a good relationship with her daughter and granddaughter, who live next door. Her old friend Nicola is the same age but has lived a more freewheeling life. Unmarried, childless, and charming, Nicola has been a delightful but occasional presence in Helen’s life. When Nicola asks to stay for a few weeks so she can visit a holistic cancer center in the city, Helen agrees without hesitation.
The plot complicates when Nicola arrives far sicker than expected, and her stay stretches into a month of aggressive, bogus treatments and late night soiling of Helen’s sheets. As Nicola continues to subject herself (with unmitigated hope) to coffee enemas, ozone tents, high doses of vitamin C, and other dubious alternative treatments, Helen becomes horrified by the idea that Nicola may never accept her death, and even worse, may have come to her home to die.
The notion of the long-distance friend coming to stay and perhaps die in one’s spare room is deeply compelling because of what it implies about the psychic “spare room” we leave free for others. Sure, we are happy to occasionally see our old friends, happy to hear truncated updates on their lives, happy, even, to invite them into our homes for the tightly scripted dance of host and guest: the dinners out, the sightseeing, the deliberate fun. Long distance friends (like many people in our lives) occupy the leftover parts of our minds not taken up with our daily existence. Normally this is no cause for guilt, but when a friend’s death is relegated to the “spare room,” it draws attention to the inherent brutality in the ethos of the visit. We invite our friends into our homes, play at embracing their lives for a day or a week, then send them home, relieved to be alone and back to our own lives. The Spare Room chronicles a scenario where the easy, self-affirming fiction of the visit between friends becomes, for the narrator, a hard look into all the ways we must hold ourselves apart.
Like any novel that grows from a great idea, The Spare Room risks being an irrelevant coda to its own brilliant concept. Indeed, at first read the novel seems to fall short of the considerable promise of its idea. Garner’s unpretentious, brisk writing style seems an odd match for such a brooding, existentially charged plot, and she is often brief when a scene seems to demand lyricism. Still, her blank, declarative style complements Helen’s retreat into simple hospitality in the face of Nicola’s suffering.
She tried to smile at me; she was pretending not to suffer. All she had to help her was the last of the day’s Digesic. I brought water in the china jug with the pink hydrangea pattern, and poured it into my prettiest glasses; I drank too, to keep her company. The intravenous vitamin C seemed to brutalize her spine; she could not hold herself erect. I nursed her, stripping and bundling, breaking out new linen, refreshing her bed and refreshing it again.
Incidentally, Garner is a difficult author to quote: pulling just one line from her spare, tightly woven prose is like pulling a thread from a sweater.
As Helen desperately tries to maintain the front of graciousness while Nicola’s management of her disease veers into delusion, she becomes terrified by not only the thought of Nicola’s death but by Nicola’s denial. Again, the conceit of host and guest proves apt: Nicola’s refusal to accept her death becomes an imposition—an overstaying of welcome—both in Helen’s home and thoughts. Garner is especially brutal when she describes Helen’s transition from sympathetic host to defender of her space:
“Get that grin off your face. Get it off, or I’ll wipe it off for you.”
It faded of its own accord. She took two steps backward, gaping at me. “Why are you so angry?”
“This house is full of anger! Can’t you feel it? The rooms are stuffed with it. And a lot of it’s got to be yours.”
Her mouth was half-open, her cheeks hollow. Everything I looked at was blood-colored. I couldn’t stop now.
During these passages, The Spare Room delivers on its promise to explore the troubling moments when a person must defend her mental space against the pain of others. It seems that Nicola will die there, and that Helen will be forced to relinquish her home and mind to that inevitability. But Garner shrinks from this ending. Instead, Nicola leaves Helen, and the last several pages of the book are a rapid fire summary of Nicola’s peaceful, dignified death in another town.
All this seems like a cop-out: the visitor leaves, and Helen is back in her orderly home as if nothing occurred. On closer reading, however, Garner’s choice to end the novel without having Nicola die at Helen’s is fitting. Nicola’s continued stay would, by default, have undermined Garner’s explorations into the way people cordon off their affections to preserve their selfhood. As much as we empathize with other people, it is a bare truth that we cannot—and perhaps should not—dwell in their experience of the world, even if we care enough to try. There comes a time when we must see our friends off and turn back to our own existence, and on this note the novel aptly ends:
It was the end of my watch, and I handed her over.
Monica McFawn is a writer living in Michigan. She has published fiction and poetry in Conduit, Conjunctions, Poetry Salzburg Review, and others. She created and moderates the literature and art website, Litandart. McFawn’s collaborative chapbook (with painter Curtis Rhodes) of drawings and prose, A Catalogue of Rare Movements, will be coming out as issue 42 of Xerolage.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Monica McFawn
Read more articles about books from Henry Holt and Company